The Most Widely Shared Election News? Nasty, Brutish, and Short

… and about Donald Trump

by Sophie Chou

What makes some election news stories go viral online, and others fall flat? Is it simply due to which presidential candidate has a greater (and more vocal) following?

Here at the Electome, we analyzed the emotional vocabulary of 2,650 stories shared on Twitter over the first third of 2016 to help answer this question.

Turns out that the political conversation on Twitter is somewhat Hobbesian: Left to its own devices, it favors stories that are nasty, brutish, and short.

Regardless of whether you’re a Clinton follower, a Trump follower, or follow no candidates at all, stories that ranked high in negativity — i.e. contained more negative language than positive language — were more likely to become popular on Twitter.

This might not be surprising given that conversations surrounding the presidential candidates have not exactly been civil. However, there were variations among different groups of Tweeters: the correlation between the number of negative words in stories shared by followers of @realDonaldTrump was almost three times as strong as those shared by non-Trump followers.

In general, articles that were shorter in length and higher in emotional vocabulary were more likely to be tweeted.

Here are the top 5 most popular stories from our dataset:

  1. The One Weird Trait That Predicts Whether You’re a Trump Supporter
  2. Donald Trump Is Shocking, Vulgar and Right
  3. Biden praises Sanders on income inequality
  4. Why I’m voting for Trump
  5. Anne Frank’s stepsister compares Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler

Trump dominates the most-shared list, and he’s also the candidate whose name is mentioned the most in all the articles we examined. The result: Trump got nearly three times as much coverage as the runners-up, Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton.

Top-mentioned candidates in articles shared on Twitter, 01/01/2016– 05/01/16

(Cruz’s popularity above and below is likely due to his association with Trump as a Republican runner-up; 96% of stories where Cruz is the most-mentioned candidate feature Trump as the second-most frequently mentioned.)

Recently, we saw that followers of Trump have out-tweeted followers of Clinton. In looking at media coverage shared online, we see that he has the loudest “media megaphone” across all candidate loyalties. This isn’t simply a case of candidate loyalty.

Trump dominates the stories shared by *all* followers.

Emotional hot-button language and negativity lead to more tweets. So do stories about Trump. Does the former drive the popularity of the latter? Unclear, but a good question for further research.

Sophie Chou is a writer and data scientist. She is currently a Google News Lab fellow and recently a student at the MIT Media Lab. The analysis for this article is based on work for her master’s thesis, “Reading Between the (Party) Lines: How Political News is Seen and Shared”. Tweets and articles were collected over a four-month time period (1/1/2016–5/1/2016) from 13 different national outlets. Classification of positive and negative language was based on the Harvard General Inquirer lexicons.